Warming Up Horses When Riding: Why and How

Q. I’ve been told that warming a horse up at the canter is better than several minutes of trot—presumably because the spine is working in a way that is better for warmup, especially in a middle-aged athlete with some accumulated miles. I’ve also read that with horses with a history of back pain, you might want to avoid canter until the horse’s core is quite strong. What are your thoughts on these concepts? What’s a good all-around warmup, and what’s a good one for a horse with a history of back pain?​

A. Let’s start by considering the reasons why we need to do a warmup. Many horses spend most of their time in stalls, where they have little opportunity to move around. When we take them out for an exercise or training session, the first thing they need to do is simply get their body moving. The best way to initiate this is with a period of walking on a long rein while encouraging the horse to go forward with the head and neck stretched forward and downward. As the horse loosens up, his strides should cover more ground, with the legs swinging through a larger range of motion, especially at the hip and shoulder joints. The rider should encourage the horse to use his entire body to reach forward with every stride. There isn’t a set time for how long to walk the horse. If he just came in from pasture on a warm day and is a young horse with no musculoskeletal problems, then five minutes might be adequate. On the other hand, an older horse with some signs of arthritis might require 10 to 15 minutes of easy walking before stepping up the pace.

Once the horse is moving freely in a relaxed manner, the next goal of the warmup is to prepare the horse’s body physiologically for the work that’s to come. This involves elevating the heart rate and respiratory rate and initiating the chain of events that will ensure adequate blood flow and oxygen delivery to the working muscles. This is achieved by working at a moderate speed, either trotting or cantering, and using patterns to encourage bending and speed control. If the horse will perform more intense exercise that involves galloping, jumping, hill work, rapid acceleration and deceleration, or turning maneuvers, then the intensity of exercise gradually.

To address the question of whether warming up at trot or canter is better, there’s no right or wrong answer. Either gait is suitable to initiate the necessary physiological changes, so we need to consider whether the horse is more comfortable, balanced, and relaxed in one gait or the other. A horse that’s well-balanced in trot springs from one diagonal to the other, is able to trot with the neck stretched somewhat forward and down without lugging on the reins and turns easily in either direction. Most riders post the trot during the warmup with frequent changes of the posting diagonal. An indicator of how comfortable a horse is in canter is his willingness to make a smooth and obedient transition into canter on either lead and his ability to canter without falling onto the forehand. When warming up in canter, the rider might choose to use a light seat.

If your horse has an obvious preference for trot or canter, then that would be a good choice to initiate this phase of the warmup. Many Warmbloods are trotting machines, whereas Thoroughbreds usually prefer to canter. Often the trot work improves after the horse has cantered. If you’re unsure of which gait to choose, ask an experienced trainer to watch and give advice, or try warming up in trot one day and canter the next, and see if either one leads to a better workout.

Canter is biomechanically different from trot. As the hind limbs swing forward, the lumbar spine (loin area) and the lumbosacral joint (just in front of the croup) flex and round the back. As the hind limbs push off, these joints extend. Movements of the intervertebral joints creates tension in the back muscles, tendons, and ligaments. If the horse has an injury to any of these structures, he will likely be more comfortable warming up at trot. Seek advice from your veterinarian, because the type of injury affects the likelihood that a specific movement will be painful. As a general rule, a horse with back pain will benefit from a longer warmup period that includes a lot of walking (up to 20 minutes), a gradual increase of intensity in trot before cantering, and suppling exercises to gradually increase the range of motion.

Horses with back problems benefit from core training exercises. The best time to do core training is immediately before tacking up. The purpose of these exercises is to activate the small back muscles that stabilize the intervertebral joints during exercise. This has benefits both for prevention and treatment of back problems. Core training exercises include carrot stretches and induced movements such as back lifts and pelvic tucks.